I remember being in a car, the passenger seat specifically, when Kevin Gausman was traded to the Braves.
There I was, traversing the middle of Indiana with the Twitter app thrusted to my face, scrolling for updates as my fellow Coloradan was dealt to Atlanta for what was a pretty sizable four-player haul. Among the four players acquired for Gausman was Bruce Zimmermann, who now two and a half years later is surprisingly one of the more intriguing arms on the Orioles early 2021 roster.
Zimmermann, a solid 6’2, 215 pounds, has become yet another example of the benefits of pitch science. He spoke with Fangraphs’ David Laurila about a year ago, touching on his visit to Driveline and how he immediately grew attached to pitching coordinator Chris Holt’s teachings.
The smoothing out took place almost entirely below his belt. Zimmermann’s Driveline assessments showed that his upper half was sound, so it was mainly a matter of improving his lower-half mechanics. More specifically, the sequencing of his lower-half mechanics.
“That’s something we noticed when I was working with Chris Holt,” shared Zimmermann. “I took what we found to Driveline, and the subtle changes I’ve made are helping me use less energy through my mechanics, while at the same time allowing me to gain a little bit of velocity. My repeatability and consistency have also gotten better.”
What’s shared here seems to be easily proven true. Zimmermann has a simple delivery with simple mechanics, a facet of his game that he attributes to his dad, a former pitcher at the University of Dallas. He’s been taught well, and the repeatability of his delivery is a trait that’s helped him go from average prospect to big leaguer in short time.
In his first start of 2021, Zimmermann pitched six innings, allowing three runs with five strikeouts and a walk against the Red Sox. Picking up his first major league win in the process, the Baltimore native gave the Orioles the definition of a quality start, something the team has not been able to consistently produce since the franchise hit the restart button.
First and foremost, it’s always most important to check in on the fastball, one that sat between 89 and 93 mph for Zimmermann on Sunday.
In what will prove to eventually be a larger pattern, Zimmermann did well to keep the fastball away from the middle of the plate. But the intent is interesting. The lefty pitched to right-handed batters eight out of nine times through the lineup, and he really made it a point to challenge with the fastball, especially up as well as in. While Zimmermann doesn’t have the mega-velo we see in abundance nowadays, he does produce his fair share of high-spin events.
The good behind high-spin fastballs is that it allows the baseball to stay on plane longer, minimizing the effect gravity has on helping a batter’s eye. The hope is that it forces more swings underneath the fastball. According to Statcast, Zimmermann’s fastball had an average spin rate of 2399 rotations per minute in his first start, a figure that would have had him among the top 50 pitchers in baseball a season ago.
Zimmermann also threw five fastballs with a spin rate of at least 2978 rpms, topping out at 3005 rpms. The spin rates and pitch location of his fastball tell me he, at least that day, he trusted the hell out of that pitch. And he’ll need to going forward, because if he does, he’ll continue to be able to work his breaking pitches off of it.
Here you have Zimmermann’s curveball usage on the left, and his slider on the right. Again, it’s a very ballsy way to attack right-handed hitters, but you really can’t execute the breaking stuff any better than he did. He was usually on the offensive, but when he missed, he missed away from danger.
And because his fastball was in up or above the zone, hitters were having to decipher three-plus pitches on from the same window. That allowed for his curveball to produce a CSW% or “called strikes plus whiffs” percentage of 54 percent. In other words, seven of the 13 curveballs the Red Sox saw either resulted in a called strike, or were swung at and missed. That’s really good.
Now, about that “plus” pitch...
There’s three things I love about this clip. The first being the pitch itself, because that’s what a changeup with elite spin and movement looks like pitched to perfection. The second being Jim Palmer, who sounds like someone just brought him a tower of pancakes. The third being what sounded like Bruce’s mom wailing with excitement after the the Xander Bogaerts whiff. Just a tremendous sequence of events.
According to Fangraphs, Zimmermann’s changeup produced the second most horizontal movement of any changeup in baseball behind only Ryan Yarbrough. And again, you couldn’t have really asked him to manipulate it any better than he did on Sunday.
Zimmermann allowed a changeup with tremendous depth and arm-side tilt to work within the strike zone. He kept it away from the middle of the plate, and based on the deep red down in the zone, he had an idea of where it was going. He threw his changeup 20 percent of the time creating a chase rate of 62 percent, where seven of his eight offspeed pitches put in play became outs. This is again a byproduct of a climbing fastball thrown to effect.
It was a really awesome way to start the new season, one in which he is going to have plenty of chances to continue to pitch with the team he grew up alongside.
There aren’t a whole lot of guaranteed spots as the Orioles are currently constructed, which means Zimmermann should be given a chance to fail and succeed as 2021 unfolds. It’ll be interesting to keep tabs on him we get deeper into the schedule, and see if his spin rates and other numbers of the sort stabilize or pick up steam.
Between Zimmermann, the visual improvements of John Means and Dean Kremer, the potential renaissance of Matt Harvey, and legitimate reinforcements just in need of more time, the Orioles are beginning to chip away at the notion that the team can’t develop pitching. Before you know it, saying as much may even be out of date.